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This is Not a Drill: Complicating the False Missile Alert in Hawaii

Opinion | March 5, 2018

On January 13, 2018, at 8:07 a.m. local time, a message popped up on the television, radio, and phone screens of the residents of Hawai’i. The alert read “Emergency Alert: Ballistic Missile Threat Inbound to Hawai’i. Seek Immediate Shelter. This Is Not a Drill.” 38 minutes later, residents received a second message, informing them that the first was a false alarm. In the 38 minutes between the two messages, we can imagine the range of emotions the residents across the islands felt: confusion, fear, panic, mourning.

Shana Merrifield, who is from Hawai’i and whose family still lives there, recalls the moments after she heard about the false alarm: “I remember waking up and looking at my phone like usual, when I did a double take and noticed a ‘Missile Warning’ message on my phone and a missed call from my dad. My heart froze and I immediately called my parents, I didn’t even really have time to think about it.” She continues, “It’s crazy that we live in an age where I legitimately have to worry about my parents dying within a 20-minute period of someone launching a missile, let alone having to think about how I would say goodbye to loved ones in a time like that.”

This false alarm makes me think of the ways in which settler colonialism plays a part in the everyday life of Hawai’ians today. Settler colonialism is a form of seizing and claiming land in order to replace the original residents, cultures, and social structures of a land with a new population of settlers. Since European settlers began interfering in Hawai’ian affairs in 1778, they have attempted to acquire land and displace native peoples through forced relocation, land theft, and genocide. In his article “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Patrick Wolfe writes about “the logic of elimination,” which “is premised on the securing—and obtaining and maintaining—of territory. This logic certainly requires the elimination of the owners of that territory.” The 2018 false alarm exists as an extension of the process of settler colonialism as it holds residents in constant fear of annihilation by colonial forces around them.

This incident is not isolated; the history of Hawai’ian land is, in many ways, a history of trauma. In the first 100 years after contact with European settlers, the Native Hawai’ian population dropped by 90 percent—from over 400,000 in the 1770s to only 53,900 citizens by 1876—due to exposure to illnesses (primarily smallpox) by European invaders and murder at the hands of settlers. The Kingdom of Hawai’i was an independent and sovereign land until 1893, when the ruling monarchy was forcibly removed by American and European imperialists and landholders, and White settlers enacted a coup d’état against Queen Liliuokalani on the island of Oahu. The January 13, 2018 event underscores and reminds us of this history, and the violent present realities of living in the midst of the settler colonial nation-state that is the US.

Following Liliuokalani’s overthrow, American settlers living across the islands rewrote the Hawai’ian constitution, disenfranchising Native Hawai’ians. Though Liliuokalani attempted to restore power, she was placed under house arrest by the US military. Shortly following, Hawai’i was forcibly annexed by the United States of America in 1898 and became the Territory of Hawai’i. In addition, Congress banned the teaching of the native Hawai’ian language, and the active practice of Native  Hawai’ian culture. In 1959, the islands were officially made a “state” of the United States.

Merrifield adds important nuance to this history: “I’m disappointed by the lack of solidarity between Asian/Asian Americans and Native Hawai’ians, especially given the history of how we got here. Asians were brought to Hawai’i for labor, and were intentionally used against Native Hawai’ians by White plantation owners to keep them stratified in lower positions.” Merrifield, who is not Native Hawai’ian but moved there in high school, ruminates on how this history of Hawai’i’s colonization was not taught to her in her high school. “Even in high school I barely learned the history of Hawai’i, and it makes me upset to think about how ridiculous it is that we were forced to debate whether the Hawai’i was ’annexed’ or ‘overthrown.’ The US government forcibly stole the crown, and to this day directly contributes to the increasing poverty and oppression against indigenous [Hawai’ian] people.”

Since contact, Hawai’i has remained a land occupied by violent outsiders, and has become increasingly militarized. By percentage, Hawai’i is the most militarized state in the nation. The Pentagon’s largest command post is headquartered near Naval Station Pearl Harbor, and the Department of Defense’s “major concentration is on the island of Oahu, where there are over 100 separate military installations…covering about 25 percent of Oahu’s land.” Most of the land that these military bases are built on were never purchased by the US government, but instead seized under presidential executive orders. The Pentagon controls more than 250,000 acres—over 6 percent—of the land mass in Hawai’i, adding up to more acreage for the military than in 36 of the 49 mainland states.

“I was only in Hawai’i for three years in high school, but I remember being really surprised by how many White military men there were. Their presence is literally everywhere. Not only do they have a strong physical hold on the island, but they act like they own the place and don’t stop to think about the implications of militarization in Hawai’i,” Merrifield shares. She continues, “They definitely have a bad rep among locals because a lot of them act belligerent and entitled… I’ve heard of military people getting upset about how locals treat them, and it’s crazy to me that they don’t stop to think about why. I have met so many more military people than I have indigenous Hawai’ians—that says a lot about the demographics of the islands.” Claire Devaney, who lives in Hawai’i and is half-Chinese and half-White, echoes this erasure of Indigenous Hawai’ian presence: “I definitely notice the erasure of indigenous people because there are so few full-Hawai’ians left in Honolulu. It’s upsetting to see that people who were once such a large presence on the island have been subjugated to a very minimal community.”

We have to consider: in a place that is so highly militarized, how did this false alarm happen? What was the process for sending out an alert? According to Professor J. Kehaulani Kauanui, there are many, many checks and obstacles that an operator must face before sounding a missile alert. Could this alarm have been purposeful, a way of reminding residents that they are in fact, not in control of their own lives, but instead live under the rule of the military (and who the military defines as its “allies” or “enemies”)? What happens when we view this alert as a culmination of Donald Trump’s simultaneous threats of nuclear war and frequent racism against Black and Brown people? Who is most vulnerable to his whims, which are perhaps a less mature manifestation of the whims of past imperialist US presidents?

Resistance to settler colonial control of both Hawai’ian land and dominant sociopolitical ideologies is consistent, yet perpetually silenced. On February 26, 2016, a convention of Native Hawai’ians made history when they announced they had written a constitution for an independent Hawai’ian nation. A delegation of 100 Native Hawai’ian representatives approved the constitution, as well as a declaration of sovereignty. The beginning of the constitution, or “aha,” reads, “The legislature finds that the State has never explicitly acknowledged that Native Hawai’ians are the only indigenous, aboriginal, maoli population of Hawai’i. Native Hawai’ians are the indigenous, native people of the Hawai’ian archipelago and are a distinctly native community.” Though the constitution cannot go into effect without a ratified vote by all Native Hawai’ians, this moment highlights an important movement.

The United States is a violent imperialist nation—one that was built on genocide, murder, land theft, enslavement, and countless other brutalities. However, oppressed peoples continue to resist in the face of the continued violent ideologies of the United States; this convention was just one of many resistance movements across the Hawai’ian Islands—the largest being the grassroots sovereignty movement. The sovereignty movement generally views the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and Hawai’i’s annexation as illegal, and members of the movement have attributed problems plaguing Native Hawai’ian communities—including high percentages of homelessness, poverty, economic marginalization, and the erosion of native traditions—to the lack of native governance and political self-determination.

The response by the Hawai’ian government to the false missile alarm included the dismissal of the employee who sent out the alert, as well as the resignation of Vern T. Miyagi, the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agencies top official. Congressional leadership in Hawai’i issued an apology, and have begun to introduce bills “that would call for major changes in alerting the public should a missile attack actually happen.” However, as we have seen time and time again, these responses are mere band-aid solutions. They do not solve the deeply entrenched violences that have affected Native Hawai’ian communities since the days of early colonization. They do not solve the perpetual and increased military presence on the islands that continues to displace families and create communities that live under constant fear of destruction. They do not solve the erasure of Native Hawai’ian culture and peoples. Sovereignty is only the beginning of a solution to these issues. Reparations are only the beginnings of solutions to these issues—but these are the minimum requirements that the colonial state owes to Native Hawai’ian residents for over 100 years of occupation and colonization.

Decolonization is about land, and true decolonization cannot occur without the return of land to its native peoples. Electronic road signs in Hawai’i on January 13th read, “MISSILE ALERT IN ERROR, THERE IS NO THREAT.” However, the US had yet to return land, and its massive military presence looms. Until land is returned, there will continue to be a threat.